May 15, 2013

Hosing firefighters and taxpayers

Dear Mayor Fischer:

I reserve open letters for the most flagrant policy flops. And, following the lead of preservationist Jim Segrest, I try to sleep on tempestuous letters before I decide whether to send them. I would have offered this early in your term, but you spent your first year admirably clamoring to clean up your predecessor’s messes. It never occurred to me that you would let the most ruinous one languish. Besides, I was waiting for my rage to recede. Regrettably, it’s escalating. If I wait any longer, I might write “Surrender, Gregory” in the sky and risk coming off as a wicked warlock. Instead, I’ll strive to be less surly.

I’ll try to treat this as a friendly intervention. Let me ease into it. The late Dan Fogelberg sang, “There’s a place in the world for a gambler.” I doubt he was referring to the Mayor’s Office or compulsive gambling, but that’s what’s apparent here. It wouldn’t be so problematic if you were losing your own money. (I know better than to tell you how to spend your own money.) But alas, the entire community is suffering, you can bet the horse farm on it.

For 13 years, the city has been appealing judgments in favor of retired firefighters who claim the city failed to calculate training, clothing and longevity of service into their overtime, resulting in underpaid pensions. Last June, Jefferson Circuit Judge Mary Shaw (no relation) ruled that the city was liable for $7 million in interest accruing at 12 percent per annum, or $2,300 per day.

“We think the judge was wrong in the ruling,” mayoral spokesman Chris Poynter told The Courier-Journal. “Our legal team weighed this appeal very carefully, because we know we have not been successful in the past. But we believe we have a pretty strong case.”

On April 26, that old nag collapsed as Judge Shaw ordered the city to pay its obligation, which plaintiffs’ attorney Ann Oldfather says exceeds $7.5 million. Metro government had previously paid firefighters $71.2 million.

In this case, betting against Oldfather is like betting against Calvin Borel jockeying Secretariat. She owns the winner’s circle. In 2009, she beat Ronald McDonald’s lawyers like circus monkeys in the case of an employee who was strip-searched, the result of a twisted prank. The $6.1 million purse was upheld on appeal. That was a tough case. Now she’s riding the firefighters’ Legitimate Liability against the city’s Draconian Deferral.

When is the city going to start winning? Or, conversely, when is it going to stop losing our money? After repeatedly eating dust, the outcome is déjà vu. Metro has never flogged its hobbled horse past Oldfather. And nobody’s pretending it can continue to cost cash the city lacks.

Poynter recently told the C-J that replacing the temporary (eyesore) sidewalks along Whiskey Row isn’t a priority because, “We don’t have any money.” Kudos for candor; it’s the first step toward rehab.

I’m not sure how to spin this appellate folly forgivably. All I know is that, “We can’t afford to settle, so we’re digging a deeper hole,” wouldn’t resonate.

A competent spin cyclist might advise you to borrow a convenient truth, a page from the C-J’s editorial playbook in July 2012: Former Mayor Jerry “Abramson’s decisions to repeatedly kick the can down the road increased the cost to taxpayers … Ego and stubbornness aren’t a good mix when it comes to litigation and public money.”

Be not afraid to cite Jerry’s egregious intransigence. He never holds a grudge for more than a decade or two.

I don’t know how you’ll explain why you let this mess fester. Gambling and litigation compulsions aren’t contagious. Your winsome wit will be worthless as you propose how to fund this spiraling liability. It’s no laughing matter. Perhaps you should create a “Go Fund Me” account and cast yourself as a victim of politics and/or some undefined psychopathology. It’s been done before.

Your legal brain-trust would be wise to humbly initiate settlement talks with Oldfather and end this reign of error. Besides, I want her on retainer when I persuade the city to divorce Cordish.

In conclusion, we want you to get healthy and excel. If you want to win (or avoid losing bigger), you’ve got to stop playing Abramsonian games with first responders. I pity the city if you don’t end this foolishness. May it forgive you for coming late to the table; and me, for coming late with this intervention. I have your billing address, but this one’s pro bono.


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